Photo: Laura Fuhrman/Unsplash
Over time, from the Bill of Rights in 1960 to the 1982 constitutional reform that included the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Canada encoded a right to equality regardless of personal demographics. Nevertheless, many changes and government programs later, we still live in a highly stratified world. Most programs seek to address inequality experienced by adults and older youth. This emphasis largely ignores the fact that one of the largest predictors of life success is almost entirely set in stone by the age of eight – the ability to read.
Low literacy rates have long been a common – and fully justified – focus of governments and civil society. Literacy has been proven to be a strong predictor of lifetime success, with childhood literacy gaps linked to detrimental health outcomes, poverty, high incarceration rates and high risk of injury.
What isn’t talked about enough is uneven access to literacy. There is ample evidence that there are disproportionate gaps in literacy achievement among people with learning disabilities, those of low socioeconomic status, Indigenous peoples and minorities. In the United States, only 18 per cent of Black children attain reading proficiency by the end of Grade 4 compared to 45 per cent of White children. In Canada we do not collect and analyze holistically data on literacy achievement by race, but the limited data we have, mostly from Toronto, suggest that there is a link here as well.
Traditionally, governments have recognized this gap by spending large sums of money on programs geared toward adults. These programs are necessary, but they represent an ineffective way to address these issues. For reasons having to do with evolution and modern advances, the path to literacy or illiteracy is mostly set by the age of eight. Unlike spoken language which was an early humanoid skill, reading and writing are, from an evolutionary perspective, new processes. As a result, the brain creates the pathways to reading in a much clumsier way than it creates the ability to use oral language. Oral language rests in one region of the brain and mostly requires just exposure to acquire. Reading links multiple separate parts of the brain and requires rewiring to connect these skills.
Put more simply, we learn to speak the way we learn to dance – through watching, exposure and what appears to be instinct. However, the way we learn to read is more like the way we learn to drive a car or to apply calculus – by combining various discrete tasks and skills into a new product.1 At age eight, however, the brain loses some of its neuroplasticity – so while it is still possible to teach a struggling reader at this point, it becomes increasingly resource-intensive as time passes.
Reading is a combination of a number of different pieces which our brain uses to map the visual cues of a group of letters to meaning. The process of learning to read involves mastering seemingly disparate things and then combining them into the magic that is knowledge acquisition through a page of letters. Some of these precursor skills are acquired before school starts. Gaps in those skills, as assessed through early years screening, indicate that groups of historic disadvantage – minorities, low economic status, neurodiverse individuals and Indigenous people – are already behind at about age four. Early skills include things like letter recognition (think Sesame Street), phonological awareness such as rhymes, oral language skills and others.
At this point the finger is often pointed at parents. While it is completely true that having a parent who talks, sings and reads to their child is a key component of early success, gaps in the early years are not as simple as parental attentiveness. A major distinguishing factor at this age is access to high-quality early education – that societal function we have been accustomed to thinking of as daycare to allow women to enter the workforce. Children in high-quality care settings are being educated. They receive instruction in a play-based environment in a way that is meant to improve their fundamental building blocks. In a societal mindset that “daycare” is the responsibility of families and its purpose is only to allow families to work and have children, we start building an inequality edge at an early age. This gap is not a slight deviance – research shows that children from low socioeconomic backgrounds often enter school with word gaps in the millions.
Once children enter school they begin the rigorous academic process of becoming a reader. For an adult, reading is automatic. For a child, it is the need to acquire multiple skills at rapid speed and synthesize their use. Grade 1, which some term the “reading mountain,” requires children to build on their foundation in the various strands of reading – skills that let kids break the alphabetic code and those, such as vocabulary and background knowledge, that allow them to comprehend the words they have decoded.2
Reading, as an unnatural process, is akin to learning to read music and play an instrument. It requires explicit instruction for the skill to be gained. For reading, a small percentage of children (estimated at 5 per cent) will appear to acquire this skill effortlessly, while around one third can learn to read with some broad instruction. The majority of children, however, require explicit instruction to learn to read, and still others (10–15 per cent) can learn to read only with extensive explicit instruction.
The predominant teaching philosophy in English Canada and the United States is one referred to as balanced literacy, built on programs developed by corporate heavyweights Lucy Calkins and Fontas and Pinnell. It leans heavily on guessing and guided reading rather than instruction. Using a broad instruction approach, the teacher acts more as a guide than as an instructor. On the basis of what we know about how children learn to read, that means instruction time is going to help only the first two groups – those who learn almost on their own and the group that requires minimal broad instruction. In other words, the predominant approach is setting up only 40 per cent of children for success.3 Recently, an internal memo from Lucy Calkins’s team conceded that the evidence showed their practices were flawed.4
The other school of thought, structured literacy, helps all children. Jurisdictions such as Australia, the United Kingdom and various U.S. states that have adopted this approach have been producing notable results. For example, Mississippi, which provided professional development to its teachers in structured literacy practices, was the only state to see its national standardized results at the Grade 4 level improve. Black and Hispanic students in the state narrowed the gap with their White counterparts and did better than their peers in all other states.5
Going back to the equality question, what we see is that those groups that entered school with a disadvantage aren’t receiving the “great leveller” we think we provide. The gaps widen. The reason requires a step out of the classroom. If 40 per cent of children are getting the instruction they need in school, of the remaining 60 per cent, many are learning in other ways. Whether it is a parent working with the child, resource kits from bookstores with extra supports, tutors, summer camps or learning institutes like Kumon and Sylvan, many parents with large amounts of capital are supplementing classroom instruction with additional time and/or funds. Since minorities are overrepresented in low socioeconomic status, this requirement to pursue outside help has a negative impact on those who are already disadvantaged. It also completely fails those with learning disabilities.
In Canada, no province has moved to a structured approach, though some steps are happening unevenly. The Ontario Human Rights Commission is currently completing an inquiry into the systemic discrimination caused by the balanced literacy method for people with reading disabilities. Since there is another method, structured literacy, that meets the requirement of universal design – in other words, would help everyone – the fact that 53 per cent of those with learning disabilities do not meet the provincial Grade 3 standard is avoidable. Those with learning disabilities can learn to read with early diagnoses and structured approaches. The failure to provide this means that in Ontario, over 50 per cent of children with learning disabilities are not at grade level at the end of Grade 3.6
To improve equalities in the next generation we need to prioritize early education and recognize the important role it plays in life outcomes. Part of this requires supporting our teachers and administrators to learn high-impact practices and requiring that educator training programs provide better instruction in the science of reading and methods of teaching reading. Currently, neither early childhood educators nor elementary teacher trainees receive a comprehensive education in how reading works and how to teach it. We can also retool the various volunteer tutoring programs to provide more structured (while still fun) support.
Fixing inequality in literacy acquisition will not fix everything – systemic inequality is broad-ranging and multifaceted. It is, however, a way of moving the starting line for those who are disadvantaged so that it is closer to that of their peers.
1 Augusto Buchweitz, Language and Reading Development in the Brain Today: Neuromarkers and the Case for Prediction, Jornal de Pediatria, Vol. 92.
4 Emily Hanford, Influential Literacy Expert Lucy Calkins is Changing Her Views, APM Reports, October 16, 2020.
5 Kayleigh Skinner, Mississippi Students No. 1 in the Country for Reading Improvements, Biloxi SunHerald, November 1, 2019.
6 Ontario Human Rights Commission, Right to Read: Inquiry into Reading Disabilities Backgrounder.